The notion that one drug might treat a variety of conditions seems too good to be true, but scientists are currently examining evidence that drugs like Wegovy, which is licensed for weight loss and Ozempic, which is used in the treatment of obesity and type 2 diabetes, may have benefits for people suffering from a range of conditions, including addiction to dementia.
Prof Donal O'Shea, the HSE's Lead for Obesity, spoke to Cormac Ó hEadhra on Drivetime and began by talking about a global shortage of the influencers’ weight-loss drug of choice, Ozempic:
"There’re two issues. One is because of the global demand of it, the manufacturer of the actual compound, the Ozempic itself, is under pressure. And then there’s the pen device – it's given as an injection, a once-a-week injection – that pen device, there’s also a supply issue with that."
Prof O’Shea predicts that both of the issues restraining the supply of Ozempic will no longer be problematic and that supply should be at normal levels by the beginning of 2024. The drug has been used for the treatment of diabetes for about 15 years and has relatively recently also been prescribed as an obesity treatment. Prof O’Shea filled in some of the background:
"This class of drug, which based on a hormone called GLP – that's the name of the hormone that your own body makes, and I’ve been working with it now for about 30 years – and it has been turned into a treatment which we’ve had for diabetes now for the last 15 years, and more recently for obesity."
Saxenda, a once-daily injection, has been licensed for the treatment of obesity in Ireland, Prof O’Shea says, and the HSE has received over 4,000 applications for it, with over 2,000 of those approved for the treatment of people with severe and complex obesity.
"The problem is, the more popular and celebrity-status of Ozempic is kind of hijacking appropriate use of this treatment for people who have either diabetes or severe and complex obesity."
It’s probably premature to talk about the use of Ozempic for addiction, Prof O’Shea says, "very early in the journey of scientific discovery," he told Cormac. But it’s exciting, isn’t it, Cormac suggested, the fact that scientists are investigating these drugs for use in the treatment of addiction and dementia? How close are we to seeing this happen? Prof O’Shea put something of a dampener on Cormac’s – and all of our – expectations:
"Again, this is part of our, if you like, viral, things going viral quickly. So, this is a hormone that makes you feel fuller, gives you a sense of satiety. Since it was first discovered 30-40 years ago, it has been identified that it has some anti-inflammatory action also and dementia, cancer, etc are all driven by inflammation."
Is it going to be a treatment for dementia? The answer is a lot more complex than some of the recent media reports suggest. The question will be answered by studies which will take place over the next 5-10 years:
"Part of it will be looking at people who were on this treatment for obesity or for diabetes and seeing do they get less dementia compared to people who are not on it, but then there will be specific studies and they will be rigorous in their design and they will take years to complete."
It’s not just celebrities and influencers who are driving demand for Ozempic, people who are currently suffering from addiction are also choosing to try to source it on the internet, rather than wait for the research to reach its conclusions. But different addictions have different causes, different biology and different treatments, Prof O’Shea says:
"An addiction that involves craving, such as alcoholism, then you can see where this drug might work. And certain people, when they have treatment for obesity in the form of surgery, their taste preference changes immediately because hormones regulate taste, and some people just go off alcohol after their obesity surgery."
That fact might point toward drugs used for the treatment of obesity having similar effects, but, as Prof O’Shea says, the answers may be some time in coming.
You can hear Cormac’s full conversation with Prof O’Shea on Drivetime by clicking above.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, there are details of organisations that offer advice and support on rte.ie.